Monday, July 27, 2009

On Winning A Pulitzer

I'm gearing up for "Want to Write A Book? How About Next Month?" this week, reading Chris Baty's wise words on doing just enough--but not too much--planning.

One thing in particular that caught my attention was his admission of how badly he crashed & burned when he tried to write a "serious" book, rather than the kind of story that came naturally to him (you know, the kind he'd actually like to read...)

I've been thinking about this. I tend not to like serious books unless they speak specifically to something I'm thinking about in the moment. So Steinbeck's East of Eden rocked my world a few weeks back because I was working on a talk about sibling rivalry and how it traces all the way back to Cain & Abel. But then a friend recommended this Pulitzer Prize winner, and I barely made it past chapter three. Yes, the author captured the grim bleakness of certain (perhaps many) lives. But no matter how I tried to force myself to buckle down and appreciate the lyricism of the prose (or whatever I was supposed to be captured by) I couldn't get past the basic truth that the characters were not folks I wanted to spend time with.

Which means that no matter how interesting it might be to win a Pulitzer, I'd likely make myself miserable trying to write something along these lines. We have to WANT to spend time with our characters, in the situations they go through. We have to care how things turn out. (And we shouldn't have to be reminded of this, but somehow, I do...) Chris' wise words:

"As you plan your book this week, remember, above all else, that your novel is not a self-improvement campaign. Your novel is a spastic, jubilant hoe-down set to your favorite music, a [forty]-day visit to a candy store where everything is free and nothing is fattening. When thinking about possible inclusions for your novel, always grab the guilty pleasures over the bran flakes. Write your joy, and good things will follow."

A spastic, jubilant hoe-down? Sign me up!!!

Chris also made a good suggestion for this week I'll pass along:

Make two lists:
1. Things you love to see in a novel (situations, settings, relationships, time frames...)
2. Things that make you drop a book unfinished into the "to be donated" pile.

If they're not too embarrassing, I'll share mine later this week :)


Persephone said...

I have to admit that I love those serious, award-winning books. I love the style and the rich characters, and become intensely jealous of/impressed by the writers. When I return to my own writing, it doesn't measure up.

But I've realized something since I started writing in earnest... My writing is good. It's not Pulitzer Prize good, but it's good. And that's okay. It doesn't have to rock anyone's world to be an enjoyable read, and I can toss in moments of philosophical insight now like putting sprinkles on a cupcake and not worry that the whole book isn't "fine art." I'm writing a fantasy novel, after all.

What I love to see in a novel:
(1) Just plain good writing. Well-done descriptions that catch your breath and make the world new, that are more like poetry than prose.
(2) Moments of philosophical insight.
(3) Characters that seem alive to you, that may remind you of people you know.
(4) A tinge of the supernatural, described in such a way that you're certain the author is not pulling ideas from tired old stereotypes but rather from actual experience of the supernatural.

Recent reasons I've dropped a book:
(1) The writer has gone too far into a fantasy world. If I don't find the world they've created extremely compelling-- this only happens if they are writing about a subject I'm just into, for example, werewolves, or Greek mythology-- I end up simply feeling I can't relate.
(2) Bad, clumsy writing. Writing that seems to stutter and stumble over itself. It's just too painful to read... and yes, sometimes, writing like that does get published. I have no idea how.
(3) Something offensive. For example, one male writer, who shall remain nameless, always creates female characters who are empty-headed, vapid sex objects. I also dropped the classic Metamorphosis because of all the rape stories described as love stories.
(4) Ridiculous over-the-top situations. I often find the big confrontation with the baddie at the end of a suspense novel fits in this category. Maybe that's why I don't read suspense unless I'm locked in a room with it with no way out :)

LEstes65 said...

This makes complete sense to me. But, not feeling like a Serious Writer, I would only stick to what I know or what I'm passionate about. That picture of the spastic, jubilant hoe-down is right on.

Sarakastic said...

I drop books if they are hard to understand or seem pompous. I like books that create their own world, not necessarily with vampires and what have you, not really sci fi, just a better version of where I already live or how I'd want people to be.

Paige Jennifer said...

Even in light of three friends giving Kitteridge feh reviews, I bought a copy. That shiny foil emblem touting a Pultizer, dangit! And halfway through, I gave up. Besides not caring for Olive, or most of the people around her, I was so annoyed by how the author was sometimes plop Olive into a story simply to meet the requirement that she exists in all of them. Ugh.

My current project is a novel told in connected short stories and I cringe when people suggest I study Kitteridge. Under my breath I say, to see what NOT to do.

All of that being said, I can't wait to read YOUR novel!!!